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September 13, 2003

Insecurity @ 3.75

Kevin Drum brings up the question of educational overachievment. I would definitely quibble with the mere 10%.

I can't explain it. Public schools, I hear incessantly, are failing, but aside from the 10% of schools in inner city hellholes, that really doesn't seem to be the case. My mother's high school a very good one in Los Angeles in the 40s didn't offer calculus. Everyone knew that was a college subject. By the 70s calculus, if not exactly universal, was commonly available to the brightest kids. Today, practically all suburban high schools have one or two full classes of calculus.

He's essentially right though. And today's Americans still don't use calculus for much other than resume padding. I (used to) earn 6 figures writing software systems that handled the budgeting and planning activities of America's Fortune 1000 companies. There's not even much statistics in use there, much less calculus. But the idea that we have rocket scientists doing things that doesn't require rocket science gives us a sense of comfort. The primary conceit of the overachiever is that the work offered them will be easy enough to cruise through. We don't overachieve for its own sake, we overachieve to make life's slings and arrows mere pinpricks. But we're also invested in the theory that ease makes for integrity. We live on the fallacy that the rich don't steal because they don't need to steal, that the suburban comfortable don't do crime because they're comfortable. Similarly we expect that the brains won't cut corners and cheat at work because they don't need to. Overachievement is not its own reward, overcompensation is the reward. Nowhere on earth does this happen as it does in America and that is the stuff of the new American Dream.

Cerritos is the home to Tiger Woods, overachiever par excellence. I have taken my kids on several occasions to the Cerritos Public Library. If this were my world, such places would replace malls and amusement parks. But then I'm being dad. Ours in Redondo is very nice by any standard, but Cerritos is a temple.

I think that ther reason for this inflation of studies has to do with two fundamental forces.

The first is the global economy. To my simple way of seeing things, there are real jobs and there are American jobs. American jobs have previously been like drill press operators at the Navy Shipyard that could convert a highschool education into a 2.1 kids, a mortgage & a color tv. But the global economy says 7 in a room families in South China can do that for an order of magnitude less. This means American jobs now have to be things like professional services (e.g. software programmers, insurance actuaries, project managers) which are harder for the second world to export. We need to out-brain the competition because we believe in meritocracy. There are also non-exportable jobs like ambulance drivers and x-ray technicians. For those you need not brains but union clout or inside connections. But even those kinds of jobs require more brains than they did 30 years ago. Honor and glory are not so easily achieved here. Any first generation immigrant could work on a skyscraper. Today building skycrapers is so.. so second world.

The second part of the education inflation is the effect of media on our culture which disrespects blue collar workers and families. A particular social premium is placed on white collar work, and I think if it weren't for 9/11, we would hear almost nothing about the honor of such folks outside of country music songs. A substantial segment of our society gets no respect. Two income families are necessary. The only sure way to fulfill society's view of freedom is overkill on the money side. Below a certain level, you are not going to get respect or safety.

Life is a shit sandwich, the more bread you have the less shit you need to eat.

We are acknowledging that the rich get away with it, whatever 'it' is and that average people don't get a fair shake. So parents encourage their children to get over an ever higher hump to the promised land of sinecures and golden parachutes. Everybody has to have a millionaire in the family.

It costs more to live in America than anywhere else on the planet. Nothing demonstrates this more than the fact that Target is more popular than BigLots (where they have all the same products but they're 'cheap foreign imports' without the benefit of expensive television advertising and glamorous packaging). You all know I look forward to the WalMart universe. It's coming. But today the standards of middle-class life is more lifestyle than life. Why on earth would anyone purchase a house in California?

It is a grasping meritocracy to be sure. If you don't believe me, watch MTV Cribs. But it's what we expect of ourselves. The American dream is about outsmarting your neighbor and capitalizing on the difference. Everyone tries to outsmart everyone else. Enron outsmarted California. Silicon Valley outsmarted Wall Street. I'm sure somebody is dying to prove me wrong.

Posted by mbowen at September 13, 2003 10:00 AM

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I just found your site yesterday via BTD through Vodkapundit, so I don't know you well enough to know if you're kidding or serious about calculus.

Mathematics like other courses of study may or may not directly prepare students for specific jobs, they prepare students for living a full life with as many of life's offerings as they are able to understand and absorb.

Those of us who are able to use our inborn talents and energy and what we learned in school and parlay it into large incomes are free to do so. The difference in other non-capitalist countries is that the people who live the high life do so, not on their own merits, but on the backs of those whom they have oppressed.

Those of us who are able to think and understand are rarely left of center because we don't buy the premise that, as Gephardt put it, the people who succeed are "those who won life's lottery." Under Socialism, the masses work to produce the wealth for the few. Under U.S.-style Capitalism the few work to produce the wealth for the many. Quite a switch on the old model.

What makes the U.S. the best place on the planet is that we're all individuals joined for the common good as defined by our founding documents, not the common good as defined by the left -- redistribution of income, national health care and day care, etc.

Enjoyed your cartoon very much. I sent it to my daughter who thinks I spend too much time online. I'm old enough to be the grandmother of your cartoon characters, but I can share their fascination with being in contact with the world.

Glad to meet another Conservative.

Flagler Beach FL

Posted by: erp at September 15, 2003 07:29 AM